Make life a little more earth-friendly without going to extremes.

August 2008 Archives

old ac.JPGNearly three months ago, I asked what kind of electric bills people get.
One very green thing to do, obviously, is to cut back on power whenever possible, to avoid the not-very-friendly processes we use to create electricity. (Think coal-powered plants.)
And I said I'd spill about my bill.
How I wish I had done so before my air-conditioning was fixed. (If you feel like fessing up after my confession, tack on a comment or e-mail me.)
Commenter Ms. McD said she and her husband pay about $63 a month on ComEd's budget plan. She, the keeper o' the green, sets the thermostat to 80 when the AC is on. And she's not escaping to a cold office. She works part-time and her husband is retired. So they're sitting in their 80-degree house being uber-energy efficient.
Commenter Tom is in a new home and keeps bills down by competing with himself to see how low he can go. His lowest bill so far was $67.35 in May. In the winter, it gets a little ugly, hitting $107. (But, Tom, rest assured this is much lower than the bills of the folks' getting green makeovers on TV.)
I, on the other hand, just got a ComEd bill for $87. I'm ashamed. That sounds silly, but I am.

waxed_paper.jpgSoy-based waxed paper
If You Care all natural waxed paper
This is 100 percent unbleached, all-natural waxed paper.
If you've been reading this blog for long, you know that "all-natural" doesn't mean anything. No one is producing products with molecules not found on earth, so anyone can claim "all natural.
What the brand, If You Care, means is that this waxed paper is biodegradable, landfill-safe and made using renewable resources. The packaging is made from recycled paper and printed with vegetable-based inks. It's not bleached, so they aren't slopping chlorine into the environment. The wax traditionally used on waxed paper is paraffin, a petroleum based product. (Why does gas cost so much? Part of the reason is that we're using the petroleum it's made from in everything else, including your waxed paper.) Instead, If You Care uses soybeans for the same waxed feeling and protection. And there's no sharp tearing edge, but it still tears fine. You end up feeling like you could eat the whole roll with no adverse effects.
This 75-square-foot package can run between $4 and $5, so doing the right thing isn't going to come cheap. If helping Ma Nature doesn't have you ready to pull out a fiver, shop around. There are other brands offering similar products. The keys are: unbleached and soy wax. (Some brands offer unbleached, soy waxed paper bags to replace our plastic ones, too.)
It's worth looking into because we need to start moving away from plastic wrap. Plastic wrap doesn't degrade in landfills. You don't want the convenient cover as you microwave the Spaghettio's to be sitting in a landfill long after Junior has departed this earth.
If that's not enough of a reason, take a long hard look at that kid you're microwaving meals for. There's some suspicion, even in the scientific community, that plastic wrap may be leaching chemicals when put into contact with hot food. Like say in a microwave.
Don't believe me? Stick a piece of plastic wrap against some tomato sauce and stick it in the fridge. Check it in a day. The plastic wrap will have taken on some of the tomato color. If the tomato is leaching into the plastic in a cold setting, what is the plastic doing to the tomato in a hot setting?
No, it's not proven, but do you want to be the guinea pig?
Once again, the earth-friendly choice is the you-friendly choice.

washortoss.jpgNear the start of summer, our features reporter got an e-mail touting CVS Pharmacy products that would make life easier for busy moms.
Why am I talking about this now? It took me a while to calm down.
See, the product that caught my eye is Playskool's Wash or Toss Cups. They're sippy cups for kids that a poor PR lauded the cups, writing that you can "wash 'em or toss 'em without guilt since you can pick up a 6-pack for $4.49."
Oh, so if it's cheap enough, it's OK to consume unneeded resources and throw plastic in landfills. Nothing says, "I love my baby," like adding garbage that will still be there for your baby's baby's baby.
I became incensed. (It was that kind of day.) I vented.
Then I learned that if you need plastic cups for your kids, this isn't a bad choice.

"Greenwashing is the unjustified appropriation of environmental virtue by a company, an industry, a government, a politician or even a non-government organization to create a pro-environmental image, sell a product or a policy, or to try and rehabilitate their standing with the public and decision makers after being embroiled in controversy."
Source Watch (A Project of the Center for Media and Democracy)

They say it better than I can, so I might as well let them say it.
If you're like me, you're really pleased about all of the green products and services out there. But you're also becoming suspicious. When the chemical companies start declaring their products natural and eco-friendly, you have to get suspious.
See, these companies and people have realized consumers are becoming eco-conscious and that there's money to be made if you can hitch your wagon to the earth's welfare.
But you know what makes even more money? Doing things the same dangerous way and calling it green to rake in environmentalists' cash.
I'm not one of those cynics who think it's all PR crap designed to part us and our money. I believe there are companies out there who are dedicated to making a difference. I believe there are companies out there who aren't dedicated to the earth's wellbeing but will do the right thing to make more money, and that's OK, too.
But I also know that slapping "natural" on a bottle of chemical cleaner doesn't make it natural. And I know that making up a green label name doesn't make your product good for me or the world.
Even worse, people will buy those faux-green products, believing they are helping. They'll chuck out some great cabinets to replace them with sustainable bamboo ones. You know what's greener than fast-growing bamboo? The cabinets you already have, because their negative impact on the earth has pretty much ended. The energy has already been spent to produce and transport them, they're finished off-gassing and they're not in a landfill. But greenwashing has everyone thinking they can and should renovate their entire house and that doing so is the only green option.

vicki.JPGTune into WCPT 820 AM radio from noon to 2 p.m. Sunday for "The Mike Nowak Show." Vicki Nowicki, of Downers Grove, will be discussing the Liberty Gardens movement and the connection between food and oil (think: eating local.) Joliet's own Jeanne Phelan will be involved in the discussion.
Jeanne's been e-mailing me for a while with interesting things about sustainable farming and other green topics. She's a delight and really gets the food-green connection that I'm just exploring.
She deserves a lot more time than I've given her (it's been a busy couple of months), but I'm going to make amends by learning this stuff and hoping I can know a fraction of what she does about this.
I haven't had the pleasure of talking to Vicki, but in a presentation Jeanne previously invited me to, Vicki was talking about "the ideas that growing some of your own food, developing alternative food systems and eating locally are ways to re-establish our most intimate relationship with nature and rebuild a sense of community and connectedness." Sounds right up my alley.
Jeanne is no newbie to organic home gardening. She and Charlotte and Norm Codo, who own a farm in Frankfort Township, hoped to start a CSA a few years ago. But jumping into thousands of square feet isn't easy. So they scaled back to over 1,000 square feet of organic gardening. Yes, over 1,000 square feet. And that's the scaled back version.
For more on Jeanne and the Codos' work, read Karen Hanson's column on them from The Lincoln-Way Sun.
As for Vicki, Jeanne says she and her husband also are pioneers in the permaculture field.
Since I haven't read up on this enough, I'm going to have to quote Wikipedia to sum up permaculture:

The word permaculture, coined by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren during the 1970s, is a portmanteau of permanent agriculture as well as permanent culture. Through a series of publications, Mollison, Holmgren and their associates documented an approach to designing human settlements, in particular the development of perennial agricultural systems that mimic the structure and interrelationship found in natural ecologies. Permaculture design principles extend from the position that "The only ethical decision is to take responsibility for our own existence and that of our children" (Mollison, 1990).

Never heard of Mike Nowak? We should probably be tuning in. His Web site promises: Mike knows that good gardeners are good environmentalists and so he dives into green issues such as recycling, water conservation and renewable energy sources.
If you're not free, you should be able to download a podcast from a link on his radio Web site.

In the picture, Vicki is showing some children the produce their garden is kicking out. It's a crop of a shot Jonathan Miano took this month for our sister papers, the weekly Suns. (Good timing, Jonathan!) Vicki now has clients who let her tend to their gardens. They get homegrown goodness in their yards, without having to skip a major meeting for weeding or having to check out every book on organic options.

toilet_kleener.jpgToilet bowl cleaner
Earth Friendly Products' Toilet Kleener
You don't often hear anyone waxing poetic about their toilet-bowl cleaner.
Cleaning the toilet is just not an experience that inspires excitement.
Toilet Kleener isn't going to change that. But it is going to make the deed less gross and more green.
This puppy is from the maker of the Ecos line of cleaning products, something a little better known to green consumers. Earth Friendly Products is based in Winnetka.
And it's good. Really
It's big ingredient is cedar oil. Lysol's toilet bowl cleaner on the other hand uses hydrochloric acid and Alkyl (C12-C18) dimethyl benzyl ammonium chloride according to the Household Products Database.
Acid or cedar oil? Hmm, which one do I want to spend time with? (You Lysol fans who swear you need to disinfect your toilet: How often do you lick it that you need every single bit of germs off of the inside of the bowl?)
It smells great. It clings better than any product I've ever used and it really does the job. Plus, my husband walks into the bathroom and knows the toilet's clean because of the cedar smell, not because of the chemical scent.
On the web site, it's $3.49 for a 24 ounce bottle. I used to buy the 99 cent brands, so this is a jump. But this smells great, works well, lasts long (the cling factor means you need less) and is the right thing for the earth. Plus, you don't have to live in fear of a child getting ahold of your acid-based cleaner. (Still, don't feed this to kids. I'm just saying it's not going to eat the skin off of their hands.) We have a septic tank, so I feel better about using this there too. I don't want to be flushing acid that's going to upset the balance of good and evil in the septic tank.
What is Earth Friendly Products doing? They say their products are plant-based, all-natural, made from replenishable resources, family-owned and -operated, made in the U.S.A. and ethical. Some of that isn't provable, but when was the last time you heard a company saying it was ethical before they've been accused of anything?

toms_deo.jpgMost of us, god willing, use deodorants or antiperspirants every day. It's common courtesy, especially when you living a part of the country that gets really hot every summer. But some of these products contain chemicals that could be dangerous.

The products:
Deodorants and antiperspirants, both usually designed for underarm use, are over-the-counter products. Deodorants are designed to mask the scent of the sweat your emit. The FDA considers them cosmetics. But antiperspirants are supposed to make you sweat less. Because antiperspirants affect how your body functions, they're classified by the FDA as drugs.

The ingredients:
The active ingredient in most antiperspirants is an aluminum-based compound. Those ingredients include aluminum chloride, aluminum chlorohydrate, and aluminum zirconium. Among the chemical cocktail designed to make your pits smell good is triclosan, used in some antiperspirants and deodorants. Some deodorants contain parabens, as preservatives, and phthalates, to create a nice smell.

The dangers:
Aluminum is a neurotoxin. The aluminum products used in most antiperspirants and some deodorants have been linked to cancer, irritation, endocrine disruption and developmental/reproductive toxicity. Visit the Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database for details and links to studies.
Aluminum has raised concerns that it may cause Alzheimer's disease. Some autopsies of Alzheimer's patients have shown a buildup of aluminum. The disease had affected more and more people at a time when we are using more aluminum can and pans, eating more foods with aluminum and using more cosmetics containing aluminum.
Japan and Canada restrict the use of triclosan in cosmetics. The European Union considers it an irritant. Studies have linked it to cancer, developmental/reproductive toxicity, endocrine disruption, organ toxicity, bioaccumulation and more. Go to the Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database's triclosan page for details and links to 333 studies on its toxicity.
Parabens and phthalates are getting a lot of buzz right now for their potential dangers.

The myth:
A frequently e-mailed claim is that antiperspirants cause breast cancer. The National Cancer Institute, FDA, the Mayo Clinic, the American Cancer Society (ACS), and the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association say it doesn't. Even the folks who have concerns with aluminum and triclosan largely pooh-pooh the breast cancer claim. (The e-mail says the product gets in tiny cuts and spread cancer-causing toxins by blocking lymph nodes.) Women aren't supposed to wear antiperspirants or deodorants to mammograms, but this is so they don't create abnormalities on the X-rays. So stop forwarding this e-mail, OK? Instead, send your female friends information about aluminum compounds and triclosan.

The FDA:
The FDA ruled in June 2003 that over-the-counter antiperspirants are generally recognized as safe and effective. So they're still out on the shelves.

The Alzheimer's Association:
The Alzheimer's Association says few experts still believe there is a link between Alzheimer's and aluminum.

The alternatives:
You don't have to smell or risk your health. You can make your own deodorant or buy one of the commercially available products that don't contain any of these questionable chemicals.

  • Look around for options you haven't considered and read the listed ingredients. (Ammonium alum, aka mineral salts, looks to be safe, so don't see the "alum" part and think it's hidden aluminum.) If you don't know if an ingredient is safe, visit

  • Look for brands that aim to be natural, like Tom's of Maine and Burt's Bees. These brands are upfront about what goes into their products and won't make you visit the store to get the ingredients. For other options, Google phrases like "safe deodorant" and "natural deodorant." But always check the labels!

  • Let the rock be your rock. Search "deodorant rock" on Google or look for an option at your grocery store. (Crystal Body Deodorant is a common brand.) It's a hunk of mineral salts (aluminum alum) you wet and rub in your pits. It's a deodorant. It takes a few days to get used to it, but once you are, you'll probably like it a lot.

  • You may have to give up on being dry as a bone when it's 90 degrees and 90 percent humidity. It takes unnatural things to create that unnatural feat.

The bottom line:
I can't prove to you there is anything wrong with the product you are using now. But I can tell you that you can get products that work just as well that don't contain neurotoxins and other potential threats.
This is one of those cases were you have to weigh the risk. If you keep using what you are using, and I'm wrong, you get to laugh at me. If I'm right, you're putting yourself at risk for what? Brand loyalty?

ready for pickles.JPGIt's fresh-pack pickle time.
My husband, who tends our garden, told me I'd better figure out something to do with our pickling cucumbers ASAP. We were about to be overrun, he told me. (These guys were big, green and bumpy, and we did it all with rain barrels).
I looked through our canning book and found a recipe that was fresh packed, meaning we didn't have to ferment or cook the cukes ahead of time. I' for fermented pickles, but we were having a heck of a time finding an appropriate crock or glass barrel for it.
Possible error No. 1: Dill, not dill heads.
My husband got the ingredients while I was at work, but couldn't find dill heads.
The stores carry fresh dill, but not fresh dill heads. Dill heads are a requirement of pickle making. How can stores not offer it at all? (My mom visited three stores and had the same problem.) At least the dill being sold was oganic. We probably should have added to dill seed, but we didn't.
Possible error No. 2: Too few cukes
We were a few short of the four pounds we needed, but pressed on anyway. I didn't pack the jars too tightly because we didn't have all four pounds. But pickles are supposed to be packed tightly. We found out why when they came out of the canning bath. They'd shrunk down, leaving much of our cans pickle-less. The books say this is bad. My mom says it's probably OK. I believe my mom.

Alternate title: The Great Canning Disaster No. 1
With the jam behind us, we got overconfident.
I decided to try strawberry preserves because preserves have less sugar (good for my tastebuds and my waistline), strawberries were on sale (good for my wallet) and the recipe didn't call for added pectin (good for my canning experience.)
See, the easy jam, jelly, etc., recipes let you add a packet of liquid or powdered pectin, to make things gel up. You want jelly, not juice.
Far be it from me to call it cheating, but I felt not quite honest adding store-bought pectin to my allegedly homemade jam. The strawberry preserves would redeem me, I felt.

peach jam.JPGI recently admitted that we'd begun trying to can food. I love the idea of popping open a jar of jelly and actually knowing what's in it.
We decide to start with something supersimple, something hard to screw up. But on the off chance we did screw up, we didn't want to be out a lot of money.
We settled on peach jam when I saw peaches for sale for 99 cents. (Organic would be a much better option because peaches are a big offender for soaking up pesticides. But, again, as this was likely to go south, I didn't want to be in for big money.)
We made it harder than it needed to be, with thermometers and rulers.
And really, canning's a pretty simple concept, not the sort of thing that requires conversions and math.
We ended up with seven half-pints of pretty decent jam. This was after we realized we'd sealed them too loosely and only four had sealed properly. Luckly, the kindness of canning includes a roughly 24 hour do-over period in which you can pull everything out, scrub out, heat up and bottle 'em again.
It's more sugary than I would like, but I've never been a big fan of sweeteners for fruits.
So it took a lot of time, some money and I ended up with a product I don't absolutely love.
But it was satisfying to do it and, aside from the errant pesticides, I know what's in it: peaches, sugar and pectin. Compare that to my Jewel brand apricat "fruit spread," made with white grape juice concentrate, apricots, apricot concentrate and citrus pectin. Why is there grape juice concentrate in my jam?
Plus, when I finish each jar of my home-canned jam, I'll wash it and store it for the next year. The Jewel fruit spread jar will go in my recycling bin, into a carbon-emitting truck, to a sorting station, then to a glass smelter who will use more energy to melt it, before someone else uses more energy to form it into another jar.
My jam might be a little too sugary, but it's green.

barbaras_cookies.jpg100-calorie cookie snack packs
Barbara's Bakery Organic Mini Cookies
You want you and your family to eat foods that are good for them, but you also want convenience and good taste .... and would it be too much to ask if snacks didn't immediately add four pounds to your hips?
Well, just in time for back-to-school lunch buying, I'm here to preach the goodness of Barbara's Bakery organic mini cookies.
Like snacks from other major brands, these are sold in 100-calorie packs, making it harder to slip up and making sure you aren't loading little Sally's lunch with a little something extra.
There's no trans fats, these are low-fat and they're USDA-labeled organic. To get that lable, 95% of the ingredients must be organically grown and the remaining 5% must come from non-organic ingredients that have been approved on a national list. Only 95 percent, you ask in horror? Check the cookies made by major brands. They're likely full of horrors that can't be packed into Barbara's Bakery's non-organic 5 percent.
They're sold in multipacks at your local grocery store. (Check the organic aisle if you don't see them in the cookie or snack aisle.) Online, it's about $4.20 for five bags, but bulk discounts are available.
You can pick oatmeal, chocolate or ginger, and holy cow, may I suggest the ginger? This iis real ginger, not some faux gingersnap flavor. It's got a little delicious bite, making this a great snack for adults.
I really would run the risk of chowing down a ton of the ginger ones if they weren't in 100-calorie packages.

water barrel.JPGMy husband and I have a thriving garden that's producing tomatoes, cucumbers and other tasty treats ... and we've done it all without a drop of village-provided water.
We live in Plainfield, where trustees are considering promoting the use of rain barrels.
We're all for it.
According to the EPA's Water Sense site, "an American family of four can use 400 gallons of water per day, and about 30 percent of that is devoted to outdoor uses." That means your family of four might be using 120 gallons a day outside, or 43,800 gallons a year outside! Yet, we pave everything and design our yards to roll all of our rain away into the storm sewers, sending away thousands of gallons of water we could be using to do our outside watering, instead opting to use water brought from Lake Michigan and treated to be safe for drinking.
We have two 55-gallon barrels from The Conservation Foundation, the nonprofit the village could steer residents toward. (The people at The Conservation Foundation are terribly nice, terribly intelligent about conservation and not in the least bit pushy or preachy.) The barrels are former olive or olive oil containers with special hookups for hoses and a screen to stop mosquitoes from breeding in the standing water.
Some people are turned off by the terra-cotta color of some of the Conservation Foundation's barrels. We used a can of plastic-appropriate spray paint to turn ours forest green. (Spray paint isn't terribly eco-friendly, but we want our neighbors to see the water barrels as an attractive option.) With the black edging, we think they look pretty sharp. There are a variety of bases you can put them on. Right now, we've got cinder blocks because they were convenient at the time. But they're ugly, so next season we'll work out something better.
My husband water the garden every day by hooking up a hose to the bottom tap of one of the barrels. Gravity does the rest.
We haven't used Lake Michigan water yet.
We were a little worried over the weekend. Our barrels were down to a quarter or less full. Needless to say, Monday night's storm took care of that problem for us. We're back in business.
Rain barrels are worth the cost. We're keeping the rain where it's supposed to be, we're saving Lake Michigan water, we're not forcing a water plant to treat water we're not going to drink. It saves us money and saves resources for the world.

granny preserves.JPGThe two gorgeous products pictures weren't created by me. They were put up by my husband's grandmother, a gentle woman who had me absolutely charmed.
You know how so many grandmas live to feed their relations? Granny's still doing that, even though she died in July.
My father-in-law gave us the pictured jars. They contain plum jam and mustard slaw, a staple that had Granny smiling in her hospital bed. I've never had the famed Tennessee mustard slaw, but I'm looking forward to it. Her descriptions made me drool. Now, I'm going to get to eat the real thing, made by her hands, even though she's gone.
That's part of the miracle of canning.
Granny's recipe for mustard slaw has been handed over to us. And we're aiming to make it ourselves, to carry on that goodness. This is the first time my husband and I have tried canning on our own and the first time we've had a yard to grow veggies in.
Why are we canning and why am I writing about it in a green-living blog?
There are probably 15 grocery stores within a handful of miles from my house. When you add up all the costs associated with canning, you frequently aren't under that 30 cent can of green beens from a sale at the grocery store.
So why bother?
It's important to us. We're cutting carbon by eating veggies that weren't shipped in. We're not eating weird chemicals on our veggies. (They aren't, strictly speaking, organic, because our seeds weren't organic, but they haven't been graced with chemicals at our hands.)
And what's better and cheaper than veggies still warm from the sunlight in your garden? Local food can't get more local than 10 feet from your back door.
Canning is definitely green. And it's a great choice for folks who want to control the chemical atrocities they consume.

drbronnerspeppermint.jpgOrganic bar soap
Dr. Bronner's peppermint organic bar soap
You know how disgusting and gross you are after you work in the yard or garden on a hot, humid summer day?
It feels good to get into the shower right? Now, imagine taking that shower and having a gorgeous, nonchemical smell in your nose and a tingling, cooling sensation on that sun-beaten body.
Welcome to Dr. Bronner's peppermint organic bar soap.
This castile bar soap uses certified-organic oils and is wrapped in a wrapper of 10 percent hemp flax and 90 percent postconsumer recycled paper.
The ingredient list won't test your tongue's ability to choke out 10-syllable words.
And Dr. Bronner's soaps are certified as fair trade products. So there isn't some 4-year-old slaving in a rain forest to get you clean.
Well, that's all well and good you say, but how does hippie soap clean?

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This page is an archive of entries from August 2008 listed from newest to oldest.

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